Celebrating A Tribe Called Quest's 'Midnight Marauders'

Cover detail for Undercover Presents' 'A Tribute to A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders.' (R.Black )

Somewhere along the way, A Tribe Called Quest became the patron saints of '90s hip-hop—a decade during which hundreds of rappers pushed boundaries, developed new sounds and honed the art form. Since Tribe first broke up in 1999, there's been a documentary, dozens of magazine profiles, a new album, multiple reunion tours, late-night TV performances and T-shirts in stores like Urban Outfitters.

This ubiquity is a little concerning—and I say that as someone who loves A Tribe Called Quest. I think about how Johnny Cash came to represent classic country, or Ray Charles classic soul, or Bob Marley reggae, and I think about the way icons can become dangerously adjacent to caricature. I think about the overlooked artists in this process, and how the notion of "greatness" spreads in our culture unquestioned: best-ever lists get essentially copy-and-pasted, playlists fall back on the same hits and exaltation begets more exaltation.

Luckily, both a recent book and an upcoming tribute show for A Tribe Called Quest reclaim the group from canonization, instead highlighting what made their work so deeply personal for generations of listeners.

Hanif Abdurraqib and his latest book, 'Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest.'
Hanif Abdurraqib and his latest book, 'Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest.' (University of Texas Press)

The book is Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Abdurraqib. Reading it is like listening to The Low End Theory with a good friend, and confiding in each other all the feelings and thoughts the music brings up. In a series of chapters moving chronologically through the group's history, Abdurraqib doesn't try to be all-encompassing or scholarly; with a love as personal as his, he writes from the heart, exemplified by open letters to each member of the group.

Abdurraqib's passion for Tribe comes from a particular time and place, when fans obsessively studied liner notes and interviews. He takes the reader through a deep knowledge of other artists from the era, of specific samples, of exact turning points in the group's career. He understands that Tribe was great, but so was Mobb Deep. For anyone who's listened to Tribe so many times that their music feels commonplace, part of the air, invisible, Abdurraqib brings it back to vivid presence through context and beautiful, poetic description.

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Another way to bring a group's music back to life is to simply play it. This weekend, May 16–18, A Tribe Called Quest's 1993 album Midnight Marauders gets a lively reworking in an Undercover Presents concert. If you haven't been to an Undercover show before, don't expect note-for-note covers. A diverse lineup of musicians will reinterpret the album's 14 songs in wildly different styles: "Award Tour" with horns and a cumbia beat, "Oh My God" as a fuzzed-out guitar jam, "We Can Get Down" as a piano ballad and more.

Starita, guest producer for Undercover Presents' 'A Tribute to A tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders.'
Starita, guest producer for Undercover Presents' 'A Tribute to A tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders.' (Undercover Presents)

The lineup at YBCA includes a who's-who of Bay Area live music: the Awesöme Orchestra, MJ's Brass Boppers, Gift of Gab, La Gente, Royal Jelly Jive, Lagos Roots and many others who are headliners in their own right. They're brought together by producer Starita, who served as engineer on Tribe's final album, We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service, before Phife Dawg's death at age 45. (The city of Oakland is declaring May 17 "Phife Dawg Day" as a nod to his final years living in the Bay Area.) And DJ Platurn, who's made a series of Tribe mixtapes that turn songs you've heard 100 times into new diamonds, will hold it down on the turntables.

If you can't make any the shows, there's a record of the songs being pressed through Second Line Vinyl, a new vinyl pressing company in Oakland started by Undercover's tireless founder and ringleader, Lyz Luke. But if the past is any indication with Undercover tributes, or with YBCA's hip-hop celebrations, I'd shoot for being in the building.

'A Tribute to A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders' runs three nights, May 16–18, at YBCA in San Francisco. Details here.

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